The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

XIII. South African Poetry

§ 1. Thomas Pringle

TO give in brief, and yet in true perspective, a summary of the poetical literature of South Africa is no easy task, not because the material is large, but for the very opposite reason. It is very limited, but its parts are disproportioned and incommensurable. It is like a geological system which is full of “faults,” the earlier strata being cut off by cataclysms from the later. The greatest of these cataclysms is the war of 1899–1902, which produced a crop of poetry of its own, and was followed by later developments which, as the work of living authors, do not fall within the scope of this chapter.

But there had been lesser wars and lesser convulsions before that great struggle. The chief advantage of the war just named, so far as literature was concerned, was to make the scene and the main features of the country familiar and intelligible to the general reader. The kopje and the kloof, the veldt and the vlei, the Karroo and the Drakenberg, the Modder, the Vaal and the Orange, became household words. But the earlier poetry had dealt with the same country in quite a different way. To show this in detail and connectedly, to give any continuous and representative account of that poetry, is difficult; for the material is both scanty and scattered. Some day, it may be done by a critic on the spot, who has access to the remains, such as they are, contained, as everyone acquainted with South African literature says, in files of forgotten newspapers, in the dry-as-dust pages of old Cape magazines and journals, and who can trace by family tradition or documents the history and circumstances of the writers. Meanwhile, the present section must be regarded as “autoschediastic,” a first essay, an attempt rather to indicate the lie of the land than to cover the whole ground.

Rudyard Kipling, himself, in a sense, the foremost English poet of South Africa, when asked what South African poetry there was beside his own, replied:

  • As to South African verse, it’s a case of there’s Pringle, and there’s Pringle, and after that one must hunt the local papers. There is also, of course, F. W. Reitz’s Africaanse Gedigte, songs and parodies in the Taal, which are very characteristic.
  • Roughly speaking, this is a pretty fair summary of the earlier South African poetry; but it includes “Cape-Dutch” verse, which does not come within our purview. Kipling’s judgment was confirmed independently by a living South African writer, R. C. Russell, himself a poet, who wrote: “There do not appear to have been any poets of note between Pringle’s time and the generation which has just passed away.”

    The first thing to do, then, is to give some account of Pringle. Thomas Pringle is called by the South Africans themselves “the father of their poetry.” He was a remarkable man, and in every sense of the word, a pioneer. A somewhat younger contemporary of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Scott, a nearer contemporary of Byron, Shelley and Keats, he fell under the influences of the former group. Born in 1789, near Kelso, the son of a border-farmer, he achieved a literary position in Edinburgh, gaining the friendship of Sir Walter Scott and the acquaintance of the Edinburgh literati, and became editor of The Edinburgh Monthly Magazine, now Blackwood’s Magazine. His first volume of poems was published in 1819; but literature proved unremunerative, and he decided to emigrate to South Africa, and went out to Cape Town in that year. He settled his family in the bush, and then, with a friend, attempted to achieve a literary career in Cape Town, being appointed, through the influence of Sir Walter Scott and others, librarian of the government library. He made a promising start in this office, but was ruined by quarrelling with the governor, Lord Charles Somerset, and in particular by making, as Scott said, “the mistake of trying to bring out a whig paper in Cape Town.” After a farewell visit to his friends in the bush, he returned to London to seek redress, but without avail. He associated himself with the men who were working for the abolition of slavery, notably with Wilberforce, Coleridge and Clarkson, but fell ill just when his labours for abolition were reaching success, in the summer of 1834, and died in London in the same year at the early age of forty-six. In that year, besides a new edition of his poems, he published a prose work, Narrative of a Residence in South Africa, which he was revising just before his death. It was a striking work, and made much impression. Its influence may be read in the well-known lines of Locksley Hall:

  • Slowly comes a hungry people, as a lion creeping nigher,
  • Glares at one that nods and winks behind a slowly dying fire;
  • which, Tennyson records, were suggested to him by a passage in Pringle’s book.

    Coleridge expressed a very high opinion of Pringle’s poems. Little known in Scotland or England, they have had a great and a good influence in South Africa. As a recent South African poet, Vine Hall, sings:

  • Pringle, we love thy scorn of wrong,
  • Thy simple, heartfelt song,
  • A knightly soul unbought and unafraid,
  • This country oweth much to thy two-edgèd blade.
  • The characteristics of his spirit, as shown in his poetry, were love of freedom, personal and public, love of the native, love of nature, and an old-fashioned refinement and classic taste. An Edinburgh student, he quotes his Lucretius and his Vergil, and uses his Latin phrases with practised skill. These characteristics were no small inheritance to South Africa. It is not easy to select from his poems, for, though faithful and sincere, and written with an eye on the objects, they are somewhat faint in hue and at times diffuse. The Songs of the Emigrants are an echo of the then new and fashionable poem, Byron’s Childe Harold, including an imitation of his “Adieu, adieu, my native land.”